Midnight Snack: District 13 with Jim Higgins

When you collaborate with someone, is it a 50/50 proposition? Does interjecting just one idea into a galaxy of thousands make a significant contribution? If you're a baseball infielder and you make a dozen defensive gems throughout the game to preserve your pitcher's perfect game, shouldn't you get your name in the record books? Is a conversation the most basic act of collaboration?

All of which is to say: I collaborated with Jim Higgins, a teacher at CalArts, Otis College of Art and Design and Meltdown University, on the following conversation as we finished off some beer, sausages and fries from District 13 in Hollywood. Part of our discussion delved into the unique way in which artists and writers work together to create comics and graphic novels. So now, let us -- the writer and the reader -- collaborate to reach the end of this long-winded introduction.

Jim: I'm debating what to get. Oh my God, they have venison sausage? Rabbit sausage? Oh man. I really don't drink under doctor's orders, but it's not like I can't have anything. I always tell people I don't drink, but I can sip. I'll get ten ounces of a dark beer, the chocolate stout, drink half and you can have the rest.

Jason: I would be happy to assist you in your drinking.

Jim: My girlfriend is going to die that they have a foie gras sausage. She was talking about that literally yesterday that she hadn't gone out to a restaurant and seen foie gras very often lately. Oh, alligator. Did you see that?

Jason: I saw that. Part of me says that I want to do the exotic, but then again, you know, test them on their bratwurst and then come back for the exotic ones.

Jim: Let me get the exotic three. Let me get the venison, wild boar and smoked buffalo. For the sauces, let me get Dijon, the spicy brown mustard and the mayo. For toppings, let me get grilled onions, grilled peppers and bacon. Wait, make that the caramelized onions.

Jason: I'm going to get the bratwurst. I'll take the spicy brown mustard. On top of it I'll take sauerkraut and grilled onions. Then the District 13 fries with the blue cheese and bacon dipping sauce. Thanks. So, Jim, what do you teach at Cal Arts?

Jim: I am essentially teaching pretty much the same class at all of these places, Cal Arts, Otis and Meltdown. In the comics class at Meltdown, people come in and write, or write and draw. At the art schools, all the students are artists. So they all write and draw. At Cal Arts, I teach the mini-comics. They come in, they learn story structure and they write and draw a mini-comic. Same at Otis. I also proposed to Otis to do a class on inking. It's amazing to me that amount of students that take my classes there that don't know how to ink, don't know how to draw with ink. I'm like, "You're in an illustration program and you don't know how to ink your pencils?" A lot of them will scan them in and ink them in Photoshop or whatever, or draw completely in Photoshop, but a lot of them draw in pencil and they don't do anything with it. It's just this weird missing skill set that they're not getting. So, I mentioned it to one of the heads of the department and I may do that in the fall.

Jason: That's interesting. Whenever you look at the credits in comics, there's the penciller, there's the inker, and then there's the colorist. All three separate skills done by three different people. Are they teaching the pencil and the coloring?

Jim: Basically, yeah. Here's what's happening. They take drawing, they take life drawing, other classes where they're drawing, but there's no class on ink drawing, which is preposterous to me. Especially since in the comics business, you see a penciller, an inker and a colorist. That's leftover from the fact that monthly comics became an assembly line business in the 40s. Comic strip artists, they had assistants sometimes, but they didn't have an inker. When Harold Gray drew Little Orphan Annie, he wrote it, penciled and inked it, and lettered it a lot of times. The strip artists would sometimes get a letterer and they would get someone to help them with inks or help them with different things, but plenty of the comic strips were just drawn by one person. They're teaching them some skills and not others. I was talking to the head of the illustration department and he said, "That's true, we don't really have that." So, they might do it as a workshop type of thing where they take it for four weeks. Like a one credit mini-class or something like that.

Jason: You mention the lettering as a specific skill set.

Jim: Lettering is kind of going by the wayside as a craft. If you have the most basic Photoshop skills you can do it. There's even a program that comes with the Macintosh called Comics Life, I think. It's made to put captions, to put word balloons on photos. But, if you just input your comic art, it just does the same thing. Oh, this smells amazing.

Jason: That's a damn good brat. It's delicious.

Jim: Take a slice of that.

Jason: What is that?

Jim: That's the smoked buffalo.

Jason: This is good stuff.

Jim: Venison or wild boar? Which would you like a taste of?

Jason: I'll try the venison. So, how does your Meltdown class divide up between artists and writers?

Jim: I think this class is half and half.

Jason: I bet it's interesting to see people do it all themselves.

Jim: If you take a screenwriting class, nobody makes a film in the class. But, for writers to take this class and then watch someone make the comic in front of them, they see the nuts and bolts of what's done and learn to speak the artist's language. I've been telling the new class that the comic script is not just a map of what the comic should be, it's a conversation with the artist. You're talking to the artist. It's not just there's a tree over here, there's a dog digging in the ground over there, the grass is really green, and there's a person in the foreground. They have to know the story too. You have to tell them, this is the point where the person is at their most angry but they're holding it in. And they're holding it in because what they are feeling is x, y and z. It's not something that's going to be explicit. If you're going to ask an artist to draw a facial expression, they need to know what's going on emotionally inside this person. What their emotional life is like. What that emotional moment is. When you have artists in the class, you get to talk to them.

Jason: It's funny you mention screenwriting. The writer gives it to the director and the director is the person that talks to the actors. The director is the bridge between those two. In comics, the writer has to create their own bridge directly to the person creating those images.

Jim: The writer is half-director. The artist is the other half of the director. Both have to direct what is going on in terms of action in the comic.

Photos by A. Rios/R.E.

District 13
1556 North Cahuenga Boulevard, 323.957.1313

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